"Death of Kings" by Bernard Cornwell

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The sixth entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles series, “Death of Kings” marks a transition: in it, one main, focal character, King Alfred the Great, dies, and his son Edward succeeds him. Alfred has struggled all his life to unite the Anglo Saxons of the British Island under him, but although he approached it, he did not quite achieve it in his lifetime.

The Saxon Chronicles is a favorite of mine, illuminating in a series of novels a remote moment in time, centrally important to all Anglophones: the unification of Anglo Saxon England and the expulsion from Britain of the Danes, or at least the assimilation of the Danes under English law. They’re told from the point of view of Uhtred, a Saxon warlord who is sworn in service to the Saxon throne. He isn’t always happy in that service, but who can say that they are, in every particular of their service?

“Death of Kings” marks not only Alfred’s passing, but also that of a handful of other kings and pretenders, all Danish, or allied to the Danish side.  We know how the story goes, if we want to, but Mr. Cornwell’s grand success is the vivid telling, and the filling-in of fuzzy (or missing) historical detail with well-imagined and logical characters and events. I like this series because it features an extremely tough and clever general, who gets scared on the eve of battle, fierce as it rages, and never compromises with what he considers as the overweening influence of the Church. He remains pagan – he was brought up in the Danish culture – and this leads to tension throughout the story. Royal advisers don’t trust him, but at least Alfred, and maybe his son Edward, know better.

These novels have everything I could want in a historical series: they portray an epochal time, in which great stakes hang in the balance, their pacing keeps us furiously turning pages, and it transports me to an exotic time with larger-than-life events. It’s hard to imagine better escapist fare, and hard to imagine anyone handling it better than Mr. Cornwell.

"The Sisters" by Nancy Jensen

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“The Sisters” makes us think at the outset we will encounter the tale of Mabel and Bertie, two sisters who become estranged through a tragic misunderstanding in hardscrabble 1920s Kentucky. However, author Nancy Jensen’s narrative grows organically, and it turns out Mabel and Bertie only represent the prototype of all the sets of sisters-at-odds portrayed here. These girls and women seem each to have their own secret which they feel protects their loved ones, but in the end these secrets and entrenched positions do far more harm than good.

Mabel and Bertie inaugurate matters with a story of sisterly devotion gone wrong; Mabel suffers at the hands of her stepfather, and determines to protect her little sister Bertie. But Bertie never learns of the plan Mabel has hatched with the boy who loves Bertie, for escape and deliverance, and becomes embittered. Bertie’s bitterness colors the rest of the novel. She has two daughters in her turn, Rainey and Alma, two very different women whose own estrangement is based on two very different strategies for getting away from Bertie and her husband Hans. Alma, climbing socially, marries a horrid man who is a doctor. Rainey, hopelessly naïve, finds herself in far-too-early motherhood because of her basic lack of understanding of the birds and the bees, which is Bertie’s fault entirely. The real payoff in this novel comes to us when the younger generations mature and find their way. 

I had a hard time setting aside my impatience with the universal intransigence on display. Bertie sets the tone, with her lifelong refusal to even get to the bottom of what happened that fateful day in 1926. Her daughter Rainey inherits the stubborn streak, excoriating her daughter Lynn’s father, her ex-husband, and preventing any contact between him and his daughter. Rainey’s other daughter, Grace, is the one fairly hopeful offspring of all this, and perhaps it’s because of her father (who remains unknown to her), who is an elegant, scholarly, kindly man who has no idea he’s fathered a daughter. That’s because, once again, Rainey kept it secret from him because, I don’t know, perverse stubbornness afflicts everyone in this book.

However all that is, I want to praise the author for the progress of her characters. All these secrets and all this conflict between sisters distills itself into the metal-working craft which the appropriately-named Grace learns and pursues: she makes suits of armor. This is the finest fictional effect in the novel, and maybe the only trope worth the name. And the youngest two characters, the lovely-sounding Taylor, getting set to head off to college, and her sparkling second cousin Sarah, getting ready to enter high school, wrap up this book on a high note, and represent potential redemption for Grace and her sister Lynn.

I liked the clarity of character, although I found the entrenched positions and animosity quite fatiguing. I deeply admired how the story grew, like a living organism, to encompass eighty years of family history and such a variety of women and girls. Although Ms. Jensen goes to considerable lengths to lay the foundation for Bertie’s life of denial and anger, for me it only partly succeeds.
I do like reading debut novels, and Nancy Jensen sustains an energy throughout this multi-generational saga that must be recognized. I applaud the spirit with which the younger generations, beginning with Grace, struggle against the overwhelming energy directed at maintaining ancient resentments.

"Power Ballads" by Will Boast

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Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Will Boast poses his own challenge to Huxley’s dictum with “Power Ballads,” a very impressive series of short stories set in the personal and business world of music. The pieces here portray much that goes unexpressed, like one musician’s ambition pitted against another’s inadequacy; like a wife’s devotion to her touring musician husband even as she rebels against it; and like the unforgiving bitterness that drives a man to sabotage a onetime friend’s big recording break. 

 These balanced, reverberant stories play their supremely effective magic in our imaginations and hearts – that this set of short stories won the Iowa Short Fiction Award tells us once again, as though any doubt existed, that they have an unerring eye for sterling short fiction over there in Iowa City.

Several of the stories feature Tim, a drummer getting started and making  his way. This character’s stories flow in chronological order, and we get an early picture of the ambitious musician as a child in the first story, “Sitting In.” Tim’s ambitions get the better of some of the adult musicians, and one shows his fear and inadequacy in a pointed but ineffective act of vandalism. Tim hooks up with a group of aging rockers, onetime true guitar heroes, in the title story, and here Boast captures beautifully the sad yearning for past glory. In the finest Tim-piece, called “Dead Weight,” Tim plays in the studio for an up-and-coming pop phenomenon. The record company has paid off the band’s original drummer, and sent him home to Kansas, and recruited Tim to tour with the group. At the inevitable home-town concert appearance, the old drummer shows up backstage, much to Tim’s discomfort. After perfunctory pleasantries, Tim plays the concert, which that night proceeds with extra energy. At a climactic moment, Tim waves to the original band member to come out from the wings and play. The young doofus just smiles back at him, rocking to the music. He was never going to get out in front of twenty thousand people.  Other pieces dealing with our drummer show his surprise and – relief? – when his engagement falls apart. The manic revenge he and another loser musician play on the cipher-like girlfriend captures the sad wayward course things always go in these people’s lives, and the ambiguity they feel at even the smallest effort to fight back.
The finest piece in this excellent group is “Mr. Fern, Freestyle.” A onetime edgy R&B bandleader finds himself leading an inner-city choir as middle age creeps ever closer. A few of his singers are a problem – sometimes they disrupt rehearsal, but mostly they want to rap together. This very gratifying story contains Mr. Fern’s slow transformation from bête noire to mentor, a balanced treatment of gang behavior, and the main character’s fully-nuanced background and development. It’s exceedingly well done.
That description applies to this entire collection. The prose is sturdy and uninvasive, the characters quite real whether they’re pathetic, greedy, or just trying to hold things together. I appreciated the advance copy from the U. of Iowa, because it treated me to a terrific writer with a unique point of view. I’m antsy to see what’s next from Will Boast.